Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. Not for republication by Wyoming media.

U.S. EPA has determined that southwest Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin no longer meets federal ground-level ozone pollution standards, a conclusion that could significantly affect two of the nation’s largest oil and natural gas fields.

Industry and state leaders were not surprised when EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson submitted a letter to Gov. Matt Mead (R) last week notifying him that the region does not meet the ozone standard.

The Upper Green River Basin, which is home to the Jonah Infill and Pinedale Anticline oil and natural gas fields, has struggled the past four years with a wintertime ozone problem that is marked by stagnant air that allows pollution emitted mostly by drilling operations to collect in the lower atmosphere and then be converted into ozone by sunlight and heat reflecting off snowpack on the ground.

Last year, EPA monitors registered 13 days from January to March when ozone levels in the basin exceeded the health-based standard of 75 parts per billion averaged over an eight-hour period. That included a March 2 ozone reading of 124 ppb — higher than the worst ozone levels recorded last year in Los Angeles.

EPA’s “nonattainment” determination is based on three years of ozone readings in the basin from 2008 to 2011. The average fourth-highest annual reading over the three-year period was 78 ppb.

“Encana is going to continue to do whatever we can to reduce emission in all forms, and our goal is to continue down the path of trying to attain a near-zero-emissions operation,” said Randy Teeuwen, a community relations adviser for Calgary, Alberta-based Encana Oil and Gas USA — the largest operator in the Jonah Infill with 1,300 natural gas wells. “We don’t want any emissions, so we’ll continue on as we have. And I think we’ve been a leader in that regard as far as working with the state and other operators, the EPA and the community in order to accomplish that goal.”

But the nonattainment notice could affect future development in the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Infill.

Thousands of new natural gas wells have been proposed for the region, including a proposal by Encana to drill as many as 3,500 natural gas wells on nearly 141,000 acres of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management in Sublette County.

If approved, the Encana proposal, called the Normally Pressurized Lance (NPL) project, would be among the nation’s largest natural gas fields, producing trillions of cubic feet of gas over 50 years and essentially quadrupling the size of the Jonah Infill and more than doubling the 1,300 wells in place there today.

BLM is evaluating the proposal, and a draft environmental impact statement could be issued by the end of the year, Teeuwen said.

Teeuwen said Encana is committed to a number of steps to ensure the NPL project does not degrade air quality in the region. Among them, the company would install a closed-loop piping system that would allow all its gas production to be piped directly to a processing plant where the gas is separated from the water and oil. And all the equipment would run on electricity, so there would be few if any direct emissions, he said.

In addition, Encana officials say that by the time the company begins installing the estimated 350 wells a year called for in the NPL project, drilling in the broader Jonah field will be winding down, leading to overall lower emissions.

“Our expected emissions footprint will be far below our current emissions in Jonah,” he said.

Ongoing concern

The Upper Green River Basin designation was one of more than 40 ozone nonattainment designations nationwide announced last week under ozone standards established under the George W. Bush administration in 2008 and finalized late last year, said Rich Mylott, an EPA spokesman in the agency’s Region 8 office in Denver.

Because EPA determined the region to be only marginally out of compliance, the state has three years to correct the problem and bring emissions below the federal threshold. EPA is expected by July to issue rules outlining steps to bring the region and others like it into compliance within three years, Mylott said.

Jackson, the EPA administrator, wrote in her April 30 nonattainment letter to Mead that the agency is trying to implement the ozone standards “using a common sense approach that protects air quality, maximizes flexibility and minimizes burden on state, tribal and local governments.”

But she also noted in her letter that nonattainment areas such as the Upper Green River Basin “need to take actions to improve ozone air quality expeditiously.”

At high concentrations, ozone can trigger asthma attacks and inflame the conditions of those with emphysema, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases.

EPA’s notice affects all of Sublette County, Wyo., and parts of two neighboring counties, Lincoln and Sweetwater, said Keith Guille, a spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.

Then-Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal in 2009 formally asked EPA to designate Sublette County and parts of the two neighboring counties as violating ozone health standards.

Freudenthal’s letter included an analysis from the state DEQ that concluded the region’s ozone problems were “primarily due to local emissions from oil and gas” drilling operations.

Guille said the state has been working closely with industry for years in the Upper Green River Basin. “I would say the largest source [of ozone precursors] in that area is the oil and gas industry. So we’ve worked very hard on efforts to try and reduce those emissions.”

But environmentalists who have complained for years about air quality problems in the region say it’s about time EPA stepped in and put the hammer down.

“We are happy and very glad that they’ve finally gone through with it even though they’ve done a lot of foot-dragging,” said Elaine Crumpley, a Pinedale, Wyo., resident and chairwoman of Citizens United for Responsible Energy Development. “This is a start, and at least we’re finally going in the right direction now.”

Click here to read the EPA nonattainment letter.

Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.

(Banner photo by John Amos/Flickr)

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